Prison Life in a Women's Prison
By Dorothy Maraglino
This article was first published by Prison Writers, an organization with the powerful mission of giving a voice to those who are incarcerated.
Prison Writers “offers uncensored, personal stories and thoughtful essays from incarcerated citizens across the country about what really goes on inside the secretive world of prison corrections.”
Learn more and donate at prisonwriters.com.
— Matt Shaw
By Dorothy Maraglino
Lately, the news has talked about the lavish living conditions of inmates and made comments about so-called “luxuries,” like canteen stores selling smoked oysters. However, these stories do not reflect the day-to-day reality of prison life. In reality, eight women are packed into a 19-by-24-foot cell containing four bunk beds, two sinks, a toilet stall, and a shower stall. There is a bare window behind two of the bunks looking outside and a small window across the room that looks into the hallway. The door is secured at all times apart from “unlocks,” when inmates take authorized trips outside their cells to medical appointments, school, jobs, and recreational time. Instead of smoked oysters, the canteen store is limited to highly processed foods that could survive a nuclear winter, with choices like dehydrated beans, crackers, and ramen soup.
In the following paragraphs, I hope to convey some of the realities of prison confinement.
Women’s prisons have an individualistic culture. More than anything, the women focus on “what’s in it for them”: they will abandon the group if they feel it will achieve their personal motives faster. By contrast, male prisons communicate as collectivistic cultures, and the inmates stick together to make things happen. This is why the men often accomplish more reform in the prisons than women do. Friendships in women’s prisons tend to be diverse, but shallow and functional. Most friendships are based on a common goal: women might connect to get through a group, class, or a personal project, or just to have someone to spend time with. Once the goal is accomplished, they drift apart. Even romantic hook-ups are based on functional friendships. They rarely last.
Power is a rare thing in prison, and many feel the need to try to find some. Once they have a small position of power that comes from being the anchor in a room or have a job using their skills (expertise currency) or something of value (resource currency), they turn into monsters. Some women will use their looks, manipulation skills, and sexuality (personal currency) to get what they want. These power-grabbing prisoners will cause conflict because they expect you to acknowledge they are more powerful than you are.
Others insist on demonstrating their power by flaunting their ill-gotten goods, or manipulating staff into performing a task that other prisoners know as proof of the prisoner’s power and influence. Some of the positions of power came by accident when a staff and prisoner shared a life even such as a death (suicide, parent, child, etc.) or simply by having spent decades seeing each other all the time. If you have a relationship with a supervisor of a position that is sought after, then you are more likely to get the job over a person who simply follows the standard procedure of filling out a request form. This can feel like an injustice and extra form of restriction. This bond (intimacy currency) can be used to manipulate, but occasionally it is used to motivate the inmate towards the path of rehabilitation.
Prison is a society outside of society. There are women from all over the state and from all walks of life. There are women here who are millionaires.There are women here who were homeless. We have women here who have advanced degrees, and we have women here who can barely spell their name. All of these women are thrown together to cohabitate with no say in whom they live with. This can make even basic interactions a minefield to navigate.
The Old Guard (OG) in the prison has their own code, which is often ignored by new inmates. The old ways insisted that the elderly be respected and dictated what that respect looked like. When communicating with lifers who have been in prison for a long time, I try to be sensitive to what is not a part of their lives. Most of these women have never held a cell phone. They do not know technological terms. They never had e-mail and some have never driven a car. To effectively communicate with them, I need to be aware of their perceptions. Most lifers are known for being angry. Living year after year without hope can make you this way. It is important not to talk about going home, out-dates, or even too much about life beyond these walls. That world is gone to them and they do not appreciate being reminded that it even exists. They have become a high-context culture. They use relatively vague and ambiguous language when discussing life outside. They presume everyone is in prison mode and the conversation stays in prison mode. On the other hand, new arrivals tend to share too much about too many topics.
When communicating with women from gangs, it is important to be aware of which gang they are with. Too often, I stumbled into a situation not knowing if a gang was from the northern or southern part of the state. It is amazing to me how anyone who is part of a gang can be offended that a non-gang doesn’t know about them, but they are. This is something that I know logically would help in communication, but I simply refuse to fill my head with the nuances of gang life.
Prison separates people into “criminals” and “convicts.” Criminals are those who hold onto their criminal behavior and have no intentions of changing. Convicts are those who happen to be convicted of a crime. Criminals are the ones who challenge the staff, rules, security, and safety of the facility. Convicts make up the majority of the prisoners, but the sad part is that the restrictions and confinement of prison are based on the actions of the criminals. The skepticism of the parole board and the public that a person can reform is based on the criminals and not the convicts. The convicts are drowning in the confinement and time dictated by the actions of others. This is especially hard when so many of the convicts are here for vicarious charges. It’s easy to see why so many embrace the mentality of “why bother” and embrace being a criminal.
In prison the competition for material goods, drugs, affection, and even a place in the med line can lead to conflict. There are those with such low self-esteem that they become too accommodating. They abandon their goals and self-identity to avoid conflict. It takes self-awareness to avoid that here, and once you become accommodating it is as if you are labeled as “prey” for every predatory inmate in the facility. In prison, there are classes to help prisoners learn when to separate from a situation, when to push for domination (protect your right over the rights of others) and when to compromise. The healthiest choice is to confront conflict in a straightforward way and work out a solution.
Managing conflict is something that most inmates must learn in a group. If they had these skills before they committed their crime, they might not have ended up in prison. Life is full of conflicts, and how conflict is managed over time will determine the course of a person’s life. In prison, it usually leads to a black eye, a write-up, and a lockdown cage. The inmate who is just trying to survive will hold everything in until they can’t anymore, and then “kitchen sink” the next person who pushes their button. The reaction to the conflict will be disproportionate to the situation because the angry person is piling on a lifetime of stuffing down emotions. Some women are here because they did this in their life and the kitchen sink reaction led to someone’s death.
Personally, I chose to handle conflict in prison by avoiding it as much as possible. I got a night job (one of three in the facility), which allows me to work when others are sleeping and sleep when others are awake. Still, social interaction is unavoidable. I still live with others, go to school, and have to walk to appointments. Since I avoid so much, I have to be aware not to let annoyances build up and risk me creating a kitchen sink moment. It also takes a conscious awareness to avoid pseudo conflict. There have been times when I thought a conflict existed with a roommate only to find out they knew nothing about it.
The restrictions in prison are based on the assumption that inmates are all manipulative and criminally minded, and the rules punish everyone as such. Regardless of how necessary these rules and restrictions are, they take a toll on physical, emotional, and spiritual levels.
Physical restrictions are the most obvious and the most challenging. Put simply, you must have official permission to be in any place: red “OUT OF BOUNDS” lines litter the building floors, yard, and walls. If you are assigned to C-yard then you are not allowed on A, B or D. Within the yard, you may not go into buildings you are not assigned to. Within your assigned building, you may not go into the rooms other than the one you are assigned to. You cannot go freely to a friend’s residence or stop by the canteen window for a snack.
The threat of restraint, real or imagined, is another reality of prison life. Each prisoner is keenly aware that they can be physically restrained by force, cuffs, or location at any time. While physical restraint is technically meant for situations that threaten the safety of the facility, in reality, disciplinary action can be taken for any reason. For example, an inmate passed by a sick friend’s room last year to drop off some soup she had made. However, she made the mistake of stepping inside the room and was given a disciplinary write up for being OUT OF BOUNDS.
She lost access to the dayroom for 30 days, meaning she had no access to the phones to call her family. All for bringing a sick friend some soup.
Notions of property and ownership undergo dramatic transformations inside prisons, too. Your personal property is restricted, and may be searched and taken at any time. Creature comforts are limited to what you are able to purchase and what you are willing to risk losing. There is a strict list of approved items, vendors, and quantities, and anything not on the list can be confiscated. Also, anything you get from another inmate is considered contraband and may be confiscated, even if it is on the list.
The transition to prison is emotionally difficult, and is even harder for those with mental health issues, whose access to medication is limited until they undergo a mental health assessment, which can take up to a month.. For the rest of us, there is something profoundly distressing about watching a person forced off their medication. For weeks, they deteriorate in full view of their fellow inmates, until finally their name crops up on some list. Over the days, you see them become consumed by their demons. It’s bad enough to witness the worst that humankind can offer—witnessing the last glimpses of humanity get stamped out of people is even worse.
Restrictions on inmate-to-inmate communication also take a profound emotional toll and can make the transition to prison life difficult. Community is vital to survival, but the system is designed to keep social interaction to a minimum. You get limited face-to-face access to inmates assigned to live on other yards, and have to rely on letters and notes (which may be confiscated) passed between inmates in group settings. The system of passed messages has a steep learning curve for new inmates, particularly those from a non-gang and non-drug background.
Restricted communication with the outside world can be emotionally damaging, because communication is essential to maintaining relationships with family and friends. The hours of the phone are restricted—you may make up to three 15-minute phone calls a day—and depends heavily on scheduling, availability, and when you are assigned to be programming. For some, that limits their ability to make calls even more: a person who works an early job starts their workday at 7am, before the phones are available, and does not return until right before the afternoon unit recall. For them, their only chance to make calls is in the afternoon and night, and only if the day room is open. Letters are delivered at the pace of the pony express and may be delayed weeks if the mailroom is short staffed. Emails are available now, but also require screening and may be delayed hours, days, or even weeks.
Finally, the confinement of prison can be restrictive on a spiritual level. While the prison system does recognize many forms of religion from Protestantism to Wicca, you can’t practice your religion in certain spaces, While houses of worship do exist, they have in many cases been repurposed by inmates as spots to hook with girlfriends or dope dealers. Some religious leaders at the prison are corrupt, too—recently, our “dedicated chaplain” was fired for smuggling alcohol to inmates. There is no definitive way to address this without infringing on the religious rights of others.
Each prisoner must decide which rules to resist and which to accept: anything from physical confinement to how you wear your clothing or use cosmetics. The restrictions on personal freedom challenge a prisoner’s resolve to obey the most. They force us to fight a battle between keeping our individuality and being a prisoner.
Dorothy Maraglino is serving life without parole in California for 1st degree felony murder with special circumstances.
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